News about 53rd St. in Hyde Park, Chicago

Faces of 53rd Street

Faces of 53rd Street: Matthias Merges

By Calmetta Coleman and Lilian Huang

After opening two new restaurants in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood, Matthias Merges faced a common restaurant industry challenge: securing and keeping high-quality employees.

The award-winning chef could have recruited workers from anywhere in the city for his French-Italian eatery A10 and Japanese-inspired Yusho, including from the original Yusho in the Avondale neighborhood. Instead, he instituted a policy that 70 percent of A10 and Yusho employees must live within walking distance of their workplace or have easy access by bus. While keeping a restaurant employee for 18 months is considered good in the industry, both A10 and Yusho, which opened in 2013 and 2014, respectively, have staff who have been with them since the beginning. Together, the restaurants employ 60 people.

“We could have brought employees from the North Side, but that doesn’t do any good for us or the community,” says Merges, who lives on the North Side. “We’re invested in the community.”

Indeed, while still running three other popular restaurants elsewhere in Chicago and Las Vegas, Merges spends about one-third of his time in Hyde Park and sits on the Hyde Park Chamber of Commerce. Locals might spot him, sporting his signature beard, at museums and other cultural venues in the neighborhood—or even at other restaurants on 53rd Street.

A few months ago, Merges recalls, a customer came into A10, looked over the menu, and made it known that he did not want any of the dishes listed. What he really wanted, he said, was fried fish. Wired to please his customers, Merges headed across the street to Indian restaurant Rajun Cajun and borrowed a raw red snapper. He fried it up and served it with roasted potatoes and tartar sauce. After the meal, the customer told Merges, “That’s the best piece of fish I’ve ever had.”

One of Merges’ favorite things about 53rd Street is the community of restaurants and how they interact with and support one another. There is, naturally, a good deal of overlap between customers of A10, at 1462 E. 53rd Street, and Yusho, at 1301 E. 53rd, with some patrons frequently dining at both in the same day. The restaurants also welcome referrals from the likes of Rajun Cajun and Pizza Capri and return the favor by recommending neighboring restaurants for their customers who decide to go elsewhere. “The more community you create, the more successful everyone is going to be,” Merges says.

Merges’ definition of success goes beyond the profitability of his restaurants. He also has a mission of serving the community through his work. He partners with the Cook County Jail’s nonviolent felon release program to operate a vegetable garden where inmates cultivate and tend produce for Chicago restaurants. Merges and his employees help the inmates to develop these valuable skills and provide them with information on what it is like working in a restaurant. A number of inmates from the program have gone on to work at Merges’ restaurants. Merges describes his approach to this work in simple terms, “You search for people who never had the opportunity to do good, and give them an opportunity, and they do good.”

The 49-year-old is also one of the founders of Pilot Light, a nonprofit that partners with Chicago schools to educate children about food and nutrition and equip them to make healthy lifestyle choices. Its free curriculum is currently implemented in six schools, including Ray Elementary in Hyde Park and Anna R. Langford Community Academy in Englewood.

Even with five restaurants and nonprofit work on his plate, Merges still makes time for hobbies. He enjoys activities like camping, running, climbing and, of course, spending time with his family. His wife, a Chicago architect, had a hand in designing both of his Hyde Park restaurants, and at home, he teaches his three daughters how to cook. Merges also does photography, including promotional photography for his restaurants.

He is excited about the potential for his 53rd Street restaurants and for the neighborhood in general. “There has been an emergence of 53rd Street that has been great, but has not hit its peak,” he says.

At A10 and Yusho, he continually looks for ways to keep the offerings fresh. Both restaurants frequently offer unique menus for holidays and other special occasions, such as A10’s Sunday brunch menu and its “Tour the Garden” dinner series this past summer, which showcased a different item of produce from the Hyde Park farmer’s market every Wednesday. He also recently hired a new chef for A10.

“Creating a culture is very important for us, and it takes time to do that,” he notes. “We’ve made great strides, but I can’t wait to see the five-year mark!”

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Faces of 53rd Street is a twice-monthly series that profiles business owners, employees, and shoppers who contribute to the vibrancy of Hyde Park's 53rd Street retail corridor. If you would like to recommend a familiar face on 53rd Street for a profile, write to us at 53rd@lists.uchicago.edu.

Faces of 53rd Street: Aldo Rojas and Steven Rife

By Rosalind Cummings-Yeates

If you walk into Chant restaurant at any time of day, you will most likely witness scenes of hugging and kissing and customers being served without looking at the menu. That’s because Chant is more than a restaurant. For regular customers, it’s an extension of their home. “We have a strong relationship with our customers. They are like family,” explains general manager Aldo Rojas.

It’s this personal connection, as well as the carefully prepared Asian fusion cuisine, that has helped Chant become a popular and longstanding destination on 53rd Street. “We’re here to do business and create long-lasting relationships,” says executive chef Steven Rife, who is known to many Chant patrons as simply Chef Steven.

Chant, at 1509 E. 53rd Street, offers intriguing blends of influences, serving up dishes like braised short rib poutine and duck tacos for a global fusion of flavors. But aside from the artful creations, the restaurant is noted for fresh, mostly organic ingredients.

“So many restaurants think that it’s expensive to do wholesome, fresh ingredients but it’s not,” says Rife. “The most important thing in a restaurant is the customer’s enjoyment, and the food is a big part of that.”

The other part is ambiance and customer service, which Chant also supplies with a bright, Asian-themed decor and an ingratiating staff.  The restaurant attracts new customers from all over the city but regulars make up the core of its clientele. “We love Hyde Park and we love our customers,” says Rojas. “We have people who, if they don’t come every day, they come every other day.”

Rojas arrived at Chant in 2011 and Rife in 2013. Both men are 37 years old and started their restaurant careers at 15, and both recognized the importance of catering to customers’ needs. Rojas started at La Pasadita, a popular Wicker Park restaurant and went on to work at Phil Stefani’s Signature restaurants and Harborside International Golf Center, managing banquets and catering. Rife worked as executive sous chef at the Museum of Contemporary Art under Wolfgang Puck, and later as Executive Chef at Red Canary and Ristorante Al Teatro.

While Rojas lives in Portage Park and Rife lives in the South Loop, both are regular fixtures in Hyde Park. Rojas enjoys going to the Promontory and checking out new restaurants at Harper Court with his girlfriend. During the summer, Rife loves to relax at the close of his day in the nature preserve at the end of 53rd Street, and he also frequents the music fests in Nichols Park.

Both Rojas and Rife believe that their focus on connecting with residents and offering a welcoming spot for entertainment, years before there were other options, have helped spur Hyde Park’s revitalization.

“We really started the nightlife scene on 53rd,” Rojas said, referencing the live bands that the restaurant has hosted every weekend since 2011. “We don’t have a cover and customers don’t have to drive all the way downtown. We wanted to keep our customers in Hyde Park and not risk drinking and driving.” 

Featuring live jazz, blues and Latin jazz bands as well as a house music DJ every other Saturday (check the music schedule at www.chantchicago.com), Chant draws a packed house on weekends. “Sometimes our waitlist is up to an hour on Fridays and we’ll have 500 people in here on busy nights,” Rojas says.

As pioneers of the renewed energy on 53rd, Rojas and Rife are excited to see the expansion of the entire community. “When I started, we were the main local place,” recalls Rife. “When other places started popping up, people worried about what would happen to Chant.  Well, what happened was we increased our business as more people are coming to Hyde Park. We’re enjoying the growth and we’re thankful for our customers that are growing and expanding with us.”

Faces of 53rd Street: Fylynne “Lynne the Laundry Lady” Crawford

In 2007, after selling some South Side apartment buildings they co-owned, Fylynne Crawford and her husband Darryl were shopping for a new business venture. Through a laundromat broker, they learned that Kimbark Coin Laundry, located at 1218 E. 53rd Street since 1963, was for sale. The couple had close ties to Hyde Park, so they bought it. That’s when Fylynne Crawford, who goes by the name Lynne, became “Lynne the Laundry Lady.”

Crawford, 57, uses videos, photos, and posts on the laundromat’s Facebook page to pitch herself as an expert on tackling tough stains from items such as gravy and barbeque sauce. As owner operators, Crawford and her husband spend about 40 hours a week in the laundromat. She recently spoke to the 53rd Street Blog about her business and involvement in the community.

Q. How has the business grown or changed through the years?

Crawford: We bought Kimbark Laundry in 2007, but the store has been a staple in Hyde Park since 1963. Since we bought the business, we’ve added a drop-off laundry service, a dry-cleaning service and a pick-up and delivery service. We have 50 washers and 34 dryers, and we have two employees. As a neighborhood business, we have a couple of target markets.  First, we want to reach those residents that don’t have access to a washer and dryer in their house or apartment. Second, with our drop-off service we’d like to reach those people who don’t have the time or the inclination to do their laundry.

Q. What are your connections to Hyde Park?

Crawford: We have been very connected to Hyde Park in our business and personally over the years. My husband and business partner, Darryl Crawford, was a Hyde Park resident for 20 years. He lived in a building just across the street from Kimbark Laundry. He was also a member of the Local School Council and served as a coach for the American Youth Soccer Organization league.

Since our ownership of Kimbark Laundry, we have been involved with local community groups at various times, including the Hyde Park Chamber of Commerce, the Hyde Park Kiwanis Club and the Hyde Park Kenwood Community Council. We have also volunteered on various political campaigns for local elected officials.

Q.   Why did you decide to start putting videos online?

Crawford:  The idea came from a customer who is a videographer, Marvin Evins. From his coming to the laundromat, we started talking and he offered to film a commercial and put it on YouTube. We filmed here at the store. We also promote the laundromat through our website, Facebook page, Google ads, flyers in the neighborhood, and signage in the windows.

 

Q. In the past Kimbark Laundry has had community-focused events inside the laundromat. Do you plan to continue or restart those efforts?

Crawford: We have used Kimbark Laundry to help encourage neighborhood children to read through a program we call Wash & Read. We had prominent Hyde Parkers, including Toni Preckwinckle and Barbara Flynn Currie, come in to read to the children of our customers. It was a rousing success. Also, during various elections, we did weekly voter registration drives to encourage civic involvement in the political process. We have not done these kinds of events recently, but we would like to do more in the future.

 

Q. What do you want customers and prospective customers to know about you and Kimbark Laundry?

Crawford: We want customers and prospective customers to know that Kimbark Laundry is here to serve the community. As a small business, we want and need the support of our neighbors. My goal is to get to know our neighbors.

 

Faces of 53rd Street is a twice-monthly series that profiles business owners, employees, and shoppers who contribute to the vibrancy of Hyde Park's 53rd Street retail corridor. If you would like to recommend a familiar face on 53rd Street for a profile, write to us as 53rd@lists.uchicago.edu.

Faces of 53rd Street: Bella Tronou

By Rosalind Cummings-Yeates

Bella Tronou exudes a warm, bubbly essence. Even as she attends to an unhappy customer at Hyde Park’s Harper Theater, her manner is unruffled and pleasant. By the time she hands the clamorous patron passes for a replacement movie, the woman is smiling and laughing, like she has been infected by Tronou’s easygoing spirit.

As general manager of Harper Theater, Tronou manages 13 employees and is in the theater six days a week. The 25-year-old enjoys all the responsibility, including dealing with unhappy customers. “I like helping out customers,” says Tronou.  “If I can make them happy, I'm happy.”

Happiness and a better life were the ultimate goals for Tronou and her family when they moved from Togo, West Africa, to Chicago 15 years ago. As a fourth grader, Tronou was excited about making a new life. Some of the adjustments she made in her new country were easy. “We lived in Edgewater and I had a teacher who spoke French, and there were a lot of kids from different countries,” said Tronou, who speaks five languages, including French, Mena, Ewe, and Efon. “School had more freedom in America. In Africa, it was very serious. You couldn't say whatever you wanted to, to the teacher or not do your homework.”

After graduating from Sullivan High School, she enrolled in Everest College for the medical assistant program but quickly discovered that she wasn't cut out for medicine. Still, she earned her medical assistant diploma then enrolled at Devry for a business administration degree with a concentration in management. Working her way through college, she landed a part-time job as an usher at the 400 Theater in the Rogers Park neighborhood.

“I was working another job overnight at Misercordia as a direct service professional, trying to pay down my student loans,” she said. Even while juggling school and two jobs, Tronou was a hard worker and was quickly promoted from usher to shift supervisor at the theater. She quit the Misercordia job and was promoted again to assistant manager of the theater. “Within five months, I went from usher to assistant manager,” said Tronou. “I was in charge of the internal and external cleaning of the theater and I ended up sucking at that job,” she recalled. Her manager decided to fire her, but Tony Fox, the theater's owner, decided that Tronou’s work ethic made her worth another chance. So he demoted her instead.

“When she was twice demoted, I met with her and said, ‘Okay, Bella, you have two choices. You could feel sorry for yourself and quit, or improve on what you need improving on and re-earn another promotion,’” recalls Fox, who now also operates Harper Theater.

“He helped me understand what I needed to do,” Tronou said. “I was thrown into (the assistant manager) position without proper training. In 2012, I was promoted, demoted and almost fired all in one year,” she said. Rather than become discouraged, Tronou, back to being a regular shift supervisor, worked harder and harder. Soon, in 2013, she was promoted to assistant manager again, this time helping the general manager with day-to-day operations. She also helped with marketing, social media and events. Plus, this was her senior year at Devry, so she worked three days and went to school three days.

In 2014, she traveled to Bordeaux, France, for Devry's international studies program. When she returned, Fox asked her if she'd like to work at Harper Theater. “I thought I was going to help the manager. Then they fired all the managers, and I filled in while they were trying to find someone,” she said. “After two weeks, Tony said, 'I've seen how you work, the job is yours.' It was pretty scary and exciting at the same time.”

Taking her hard won success in stride, Tronou credits her father as motivation. “I look up to my dad,” she said. “He was in the military but went to school too. He earned the highest degree in Africa, equivalent to a PhD.  He's pretty smart and I try to push myself like he did.”

After graduating last summer, Tronou has turned her focus toward the Hyde Park community. After living most of her life in Edgewater and Rogers Park, she's absorbing the neighborhood's characteristics and will move to Hyde Park this month. “The residents are more involved in their community here. They love walking down 53rd and hanging out. Hyde Park never disappoints.”

 

"Faces of 53rd Street" is a new twice-monthly series that profiles business owners, employees, and shoppers who contribute to the vibrancy and mix of activities in Hyde Park's 53rd Street commercial corridor. If you'd like to recommend a familiar face on 53rd Street for a profile, write to us at 53rd@lists.uchicago.edu.

Faces of 53rd Street: Kris Braaten

Located at 1512 E. 53rd Street, Bonne Santé Health Foods has a history on 53rd Street that goes back more than 40 years. Owner Kristofer Braaten is the second generation of this family-owned business.

Braaten, 51, spent a period of his childhood in Europe, where his father, who was a professor at Hyde Park’s Lutheran School of Theology for more than 30 years, worked on his theological studies. When the Braatens returned to Hyde Park in 1969, his mother, LaVonne, was unable to find the healthful, chemical-free foods she had become accustomed to in England. In 1971, she opened Hyde Park Health Foods at 1360 E. 53rd Street. The store closed when LaVonne expanded to four locations in Chicago’s south suburbs, but she missed the Hyde Park community and reopened here in 1984 as Bonne Santé Health Foods at 1457 E. 53rd Street.

After taking over the family business in 1992, Braaten moved the store to its current location at 1512 E. 53rd Street in 1999. Today, Bonne Santé (French for “good health”) is a neighborhood gem, with 16 local staff members who are well educated in the store’s extensive stock of supplements and herbs, alternative groceries, freshly prepared foods, teas, energy bars, homeopathic medicines, beauty products, cleaning supplies, and an extensive juice bar.

We asked Braaten about his family’s multi-decade legacy on 53rd Street:

What is it like to be part of a family business?

Being able to continue what my mother built years ago brings an enormous sense of pride and responsibility for the valued customers who have looked to Bonne Santé as a true source for healing and alternative choices for their health.

Who are your customers?

Our customers come from every age group and include many people from Hyde Park, the North Side, South Side, and south suburbs.

How do you promote your business?

All of our business promotion is on a very local level, mainly through churches, not-for-profit groups, and University of Chicago activities. I believe that when you put out an honest and good product, customer word of mouth is the best source of advertising.  

What area of your business is experiencing the most growth?

We have been preparing fresh foods from our kitchen for the past two years now, making hot, fresh, healthy lunch foods for all the workers in the neighborhood. Our lunch service has become so popular that we have had to hire extra people to keep up with the demand.

What do you enjoy most about 53rd Street?

I grew up a few blocks from the store, and since then I have appreciated the eclectic and electric environment this diverse neighborhood brings.  There are few places in the world where you will find such an interesting mix of people and cultures. I have many conversations with customers and have enjoyed learning from them over the years.  I do hope that they have learned things from my wonderful staff and me over the years as well.

What is your favorite part about being a Hyde Park business owner?

Owning a business that promotes good health is incredibly rewarding.  To see the people of Hyde Park and surrounding areas come in and trust what we have to say and give them choices that can be difficult to come by brings a tremendous sense of pride and accomplishment. I count my blessings each day to have been given the chance to be part of an ever-changing and interesting industry on 53rd Street. I live in Bucktown now, but I’m always running errands around Hyde Park, and you can often find me at the Midway Plaisance ice rink with my daughter in the winter, or the UChicago tennis courts in the summer.